Does history repeat itself if the players change?
September 5, 2012 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Moving in with my SO - but worried that I'll end up in the unhappy situation my parents were in. What do you do when you didn't grow up with a positive example of marriage/co-habitation?

My dad was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to me from the age of nine - it messed up my self-esteem, I felt I was unwanted or unloved and my views, privacy and opinions were not respected, I'm prone to headaches due to constant blows to the head with fists or implements such as trays, and I tend to shrink away or become over-apologetic in conflict. I've had a lot of therapy to deal with this, and my dad died six years ago, so that's the only way I can really reconcile all these feelings. Not long after he died, I had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder - if it's relevant - at the tail end of an unhappy relationship. Since then, I met my SO and we are happy and discussing getting a flat together.

However, the relationship between he and my mother was similar, bar the physical abuse. She was treated as another child, my dad very much ruled the house and what he said went - he was the breadwinner and was in a professional job whereas my mother did a manual job and was unqualified, and I think he liked that situation. As an adult, I realised more and more how unhappy it was and how trapped my mother felt, particularly during two incidents where her 'talking back' to him during an argument led to him not speaking to her for months at a time - coming home and going straight to the spare room, eating food from a drawer rather than using the kitchen, and throwing refuse from the window rather than crossing the living room to put it outside.

Now, after four years of a long-distance relationship my SO and I are in a position to move in together soon (he's male, I'm female) and given what i observed growing up, I am worried we'll start with the best intentions and end up in a conflicted or unhappy household. There are tons of things we've had to work through in our relationship which I won't go into here, but we do disagree on some aspects such as tidiness/clutter and his method of addressing problems tends to be passive-aggressive whereas I like to have everything out on the table. Although we discuss things properly and talk a lot about compromise, I keep going back to how unhappy my parents were and wonder if this is something that happens to all couples eventually. Also, I worry I won't be able to rationalise or put forward my views when we disagree or fight (as is natural when two people share a space!). Has anyone had similar feelings/upbringing and how did you reconcile this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if it might make sense for you to just preemptively start couples counseling, not necessarily to fix problems but to keep them from happening. You don't have a good model of what a relationship looks like, and that doesn't mean you can't have one, but you might need more explicit instruction and help than someone who grew up in a Happy Family. That is something couples counseling can help you with.
posted by brainmouse at 6:27 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Brainmouse has it. Think of a couples counselor not as someone you go see right before you break up, but as a "relationship coach" or "intimacy rehabilitator" or something else. I mean, if you wanted to do a triathlon but you had a wonky knee, you'd see someone before you started about how to stabilize your weak point and avoid making it worse, right? You can do the same thing here. You really can.
posted by KathrynT at 6:32 PM on September 5, 2012

I wonder if you could hang out with healthy, stable couples you are friends with for inspiration?
posted by windykites at 6:36 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I got therapy (on my own, before/during/after any cohabitating relationships except for the one I'm in now). I worked out which issues were Mine, and what kinds of patterns of my own as well as other peoples' were likely to encourage or be symptoms of unhealthy behaviors and thoughts. Solo and/or couples' counseling is perfectly appropriate for your situation - you don't have to be broken to need help finding the least aggravating ways to communicate with someone you love and respect.

On preview: yeah, think of it like going to the gym to train for an event - practicing under the supervision of a good coach!
posted by rtha at 6:37 PM on September 5, 2012

I like brainmouse's suggestion. I've been in a happy couple for 21 years now, and it helps a lot that my wife and I have similar communication styles. If the two of you are coming from different places, it's a good idea to work things out early on, rather than let them become the festering problem that eventually drives you apart.

The best relationship advice I ever got, by the way, was to approach each potential conflict in terms of how we could deal with it as a way to help one another out, not how we could each, individually, get the upper hand. Obviously tha advice has limits, if one person is a taker and the other is a giver, but for many couples, just trying to be charitable toward the other will go a very long way, as long as both are playing the same game.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:44 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would strongly recommend maintaining separate households in the same city for at least a few months before you actually move in together. The shock of moving in together is pretty big even if you're coming from a normal-proximity relationship, but going directly from an LDR to living together, when you already have anxiety about cohabitating, is extreme.
posted by telegraph at 6:49 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

How are your SO's parents?

For whatever reason, I never thought about how couples related to each other, and assumed my parents were the only sort of parents anyone had. They're not bad parents, nor are they bad to each-other, but I came to realize there was a lot that they hid away, to avoid confrontation. The first time I saw my wife's dad explode, I was freaked out. But like a proper explosion, it blew up and blew over, ending with a good laugh. No one was hurt, because everyone (except me) knew such explosions happened, and that they also passed.

That was the day I realized there are many ways to deal with being a couple. My parents had one way, my wife's another.

In short, pay attention to other couples, especially closer friends who really open up around you and your SO. See how they interact, how they cope with stresses, and how they recover from disagreements.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:00 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, your SO can talk to you about how you react to interpersonal situations, and vise versa. A couples counselor might have good ideas to facilitate this. It will take getting used to communicating your feelings when you default to being over-apologetic, but your SO can be supportive and help you through that.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:04 PM on September 5, 2012

You are not your parents. Your SO is not your parents and you shouldn't put too much stock in the old trope that boys marry their "mother" and women their "father." However, what you are is a complex soup of nature and nurture and how you interact with your SO will depend on a lot of things.

Fundamental to any good relationship is open communication -- how much of this have you discussed or shared with this guy? How much have you talked through what it'll be like living together? You have a lot of anxiety about this (which is fine) and I'd caution anyone who is moving from a LDR into cohabitation to proceed carefully and with lots of talking. The key conversation being: how will we solve disputes?

But, really, at the end of the day, you have to trust yourself. I know it's hard. You need to trust yourself that you didn't pick your Dad to spend your life with. And you need to rely on yourself to take care of yourself when stuff comes up that makes you unhappy. Believe in yourself. You survived your childhood and you should be fucking proud. Wear that fact like armor and know that you have mettle. You are in charge of you and you will never have to live in a chaotic environment again.

Best of luck. One step in front of the other. You are deserving of love and you will find the relationship that works for you.
posted by amanda at 9:40 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of the things I did before getting married was to think about worst case scenarios and what would be the plan if that happened. I had a list like: If he ever hits me... If we argue more than X times in Y timeframe... If either of us cheats....If one of us has a problem with gambling/drink/drugs... etc. and I thought about a plan for each scenario, most of which started with "we will go to counseling first and then..."

I also looked at others' good marriages (and read about them) and came up with a list of what components I thought would make me happy day to day: how many times to expect casual kisses and sex, techniques that would be acceptable to me regarding how an argument could be resolved, my expectations regarding whether we would be together or apart for things like cooking, chores, exercise, leisure activities, etc.

You can make this list all on your own or share it with your SO. And it doesn't have to be written in stone - you can change it as time goes by and things change.

For me, it got me past the fear that I would be one of those people who stays in a bad marriage and justifies it by "well, it's not THAT bad", because I had already decided on a boundary in my head: if we're doing these bad things and/or not enough of these good things, then I can RECOGNIZE that it is bad and we can take steps to either improve it or get out (depending on circumstances). That's what gave me peace of mind going into the relationship.
posted by CathyG at 10:18 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Seconding CathyG. The problem with the frog in boiling water is that the water started slowly seething.

I also suggest getting your own place for a bit. I know it's a pain, and you probably are really excited about being together and getting closer, but please give it a couple months. In the scheme of things, that much time won't be more than a blip. It will give you two plenty of time to work many things out without pressure. Face to face relationships are different from LDRs in many ways. Nthing the idea of a few sessions of couples therapy, or just individual therapy where you can ask these questions of someone trained who can discuss them with you at more length than the internet.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:50 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion of getting your own place. I have couple friends who did this for two years. She never even bought any furniture (I don't think she even had a mattress). But it was a place she knew she could go to if things got bad, and he knew that she wasn't with him just because they were financially dependent (they weren't).
posted by ethidda at 12:25 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Going out on a limb here, but there is one part of your description that stood out to me:

I'm prone to headaches due to constant blows to the head with fists or implements such as trays

I work in a field related to neurology, and I think it would be really unlikely for a doctor to ever tell you, "You have these headaches because someone hit you as a child." A lot of people get headaches, and a lot of people get frequent concussions without having long term headaches. I don't think a competent practicing neurologist would ever attest one way or another to such a causal connection. Ignore the rest if I'm wrong here.

Why do I bring this up? It's an indicator of how you think about things, if that information did not come from a neurologist. It makes me think - maybe your perceptions and self talk are still a little bit off, that maybe you have a habit of catastrophising with your inner speech to yourself. Or put differently, maybe you could use some cognitive behavioral therapy. It's not productive to think, or even really say out loud or to yourself, "I have headaches because I was hit as a child." It is more productive to say, "I have headaches, some people were hit and some weren't, anyway here are 3 things I am doing about those headaches in my daily life right now." The way you talk to yourself, about the events in your life, matters. That is the principle of cognitive behavioral therapy.

If you're about to have a big change in your relationship, then make sure you are staying on top of therapy and continuing to progress in becoming internally healthy. Internal self talk matters. It definitely extends to your relationship. How you perceive, and talk to yourself, about the events of your relationship will spill over into how you relate to your partner.

Now rereading, your whole post is a bit catastrophis-ey (for lack of a better word). You write:

Also, I worry I won't be able to rationalise or put forward my views when we disagree or fight

What it takes, often times, to have the confidence to put forth your views, is to solidly believe you are being rational. Make sure that what you think and feel passes your own test for being rational instead of catastrophic or over the top, or not grounded in reality and cause and effect. This takes work, with a therapist, preferably a cognitive behavioral therapist. It is especially important for someone who may not have learned those skills growing up.

That is just my two cents based on picking one sentence out of your whole question...
posted by kellybird at 5:38 PM on September 7, 2012

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